Why She Matters
“Tina” Tchen, a high-powered veteran lawyer at a premier Chicago law firm, is making her first foray into the public sector as the new White House Director for Public Liaison. Tchen, who will report to close Barack Obama ally Valerie Jarrett, will advance the president’s policies with interest groups through briefings, meetings and large events. She will also serve as executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, which Jarrett will chair.
Tchen spent the last 25 years at the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom doing litigation for the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and a variety of corporate clients. She is an active supporter of women’s rights. She tried to get Illinois to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and wrote a law expanding the Illinois definition of rape to include sexual assault and abuse.
With a variety of high-profile Chicago colleagues and friends, Tchen was a natural fundraiser for President Barack Obama. She bundled for Obama during his 2004 Senate campaign and was one of his biggest fundraisers during the 2008 presidential campaign, personally raising more than $200,000.
Path to Power
Tchen was born outside of Cleveland, Ohio, to Chinese immigrants who were wealthy in their home nation. One of her grandfathers was an entrepreneur, and the other earned a law degree at DePaul University in the U.S. before returning to China to practice.(1) In 1949, her parents fled to the U.S. as communists approached Shanghai. Tchen’s father, Peter, had recently finished medical school, and her mother, Lily, had a student visa to study chemistry at Syracuse University. The two were engaged, and they married the morning they left China so Peter could leave with Lily.(2) They brought only one suitcase to America, and eventually settled in Beechwood, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, where Peter Tchen became a psychiatrist.
After graduating from Harvard University, Tchen moved to Springfield, Ill., to work for the state’s Budget Bureau as an analyst for the Department of Child and Family Services. Tchen spent three years in Springfield and became the Springfield chapter vice president for the National Organization for Women (NOW) before leaving to get her law degree from Northwestern University. She joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom directly out of law school and worked in the Chicago office, which was recently opened and had just four lawyers in its litigation department.(3)
Working in such a small office gave Tchen a lot of options, and she quickly climbed the corporate ladder. As a fourth-year associate, Tchen was already arguing on behalf of one of her client, DCFS, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.(1)
Tchen made partner at Skadden in 1992 and worked there for the next 16 years. She performed arbitrations and acquisitions, conducted internal investigations and represented clients in front of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some of her highest-profile corporate clients included McDonald’s, Sprint and Motorola.(4)
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Tchen was an early Obama supporter and ultimately became one of his most prolific fundraisers. After the campaign ended, Obama appointed Tchen to be White House Director of Public Liaison. She will work with Jarrett, another close Obama friend, successful Chicago lawyer and businesswoman, to promote the president’s priorities within the community.(5)
Tchen will also serve as executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, a group created by Obama in March 2009 to "provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls and to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families." The group will be chaired by Jarrett.(6)
Tchen has been a lawyer her entire life, but has always been involved in Democratic politics. She worked on Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoral campaigns in 1983 and 1987. She helped raise money for Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign and was one of his top bundlers during the 2008 presidential campaign.
When she moved to Springfield after college, Tchen began working with NOW to pressure Illinois lawmakers to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. She stayed active in the feminist group, becoming vice president of the Illinois chapter while at Northwestern University.(7) While working with NOW, Tchen helped write the bill that changed the Illinois rape statute to include sexual assault and other abuse.(1)
Tchen worked as an analyst for DCFS before going to law school and began representing the Illinois agency in 1988 as an associate for Skadden. In 1995, she helped reform the state foster care program to close a loophole that paid foster parents of children already in their custody at the rate of other foster parents, providing an incentive for relatives to label family members as foster kids to get more money. “We had to do something to stem the tide,” said Tchen. “We’re draining resources from kids who are truly abused and in need.”(2)
Tchen is also active in the Chicago community. She is on the board of the Chicago Public Library, the University of Chicago Hospitals, Chicago Foundation for Women, Personal PAC, the Chinese American Service League among others.(8) She said her mother taught her the importance of giving back to the community by devoting time and energy to the Girl Scouts and foreign exchange students in their neighborhood outside of Cleveland. “Community organizations are in desperate need of the pro bono services of lawyers,” says Tchen, who also does a lot of official pro bono work for Skadden. “They need lawyers on their boards, they need lawyers to help them incorporate, they need lawyers to advise them when they have issues.”(9)
Tchen was an early Barack Obama supporter. A longtime feminist, Tchen says she found that people she worked with on women’s rights issues were often surprised that she was not supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the 2008 Democratic primary. But Tchen was one of Obama’s top fundraisers during his 2004 Senate campaign as well as during his 2008 presidential campaign.(10) For the presidential run, she bundled more than $200,000 for Obama.(11)
She is part of the Chicago Network, an invitation-only club of high-powered professional women in Chicago. Valerie Jarrett, who is now Tchen’s supervisor in the White House, was a member, along with dozens of CEOs, lawyers, judges and congresswomen.(12) “It exists to be what it is,” Tchen says, “which is a network.”(13)
Gill, Donna, “Chicago Lawyer Person of the Year: Christina Tchen,” Chicago Lawyer, December 1994
Ritter, Jim, “We all belong to 33 clans,” Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 10, 2000
Chanen, Jill Schachner, “Early Exits: Women of color at large law firms tell ABA researchers they are being overlooked and undervalued,” ABA Journal, August 2006
Christina Tchen’s biography on Skadden’s official web site
Press release, “President-elect Obama announces more key White House staff,” Change.gov, Dec. 5, 2008
Sweet, Lynn, "Obama to create White House women's council," Chicago Sun-Times, March 10, 2009
Foerstner, Abigail “The group Consciousness-raising taught a lesson that remains a powerful bond,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 1989
Anderson, Veronica, “Forty under 40; Christina M. Tchen,” Crain’s Chicago Business, Sept. 25, 1995
Jones, Chris, “There’s no stopping us; We work too much and play too little but who dares step off the treadmill?” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 2004
Tchen, Christina M., “Closing argument: Giving back to your community,” Chicago Lawyer, Volume 31, Number 04, April 2008
Kapos, Shia, “Social split: Barack vs. Hillary; Raw feelings spill out among divided Democrats,” Crain’s Chicago Business, Feb. 25, 2008
Sweet, Lynn, “Obama names top fund-raisers, gives more details than Clinton,” Chicago Sun Times, Nov. 14, 2007
Sachdev, Ameet, “At 25, women’s executive club celebrates, re-evaluates,” Chicago Tribune, June 13, 2004